Peter Hart-Brinson

The Gay Marriage Generation: How the LGBTQ Movement Transformed American Culture is about a generational change in the imagination of sexuality that caused an unprecedented shift in public opinion about same-sex marriage in the U.S.

NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about? Why will people want to read your book?

Hart-Brinson: The rise of same-sex marriage in the U.S. was fast; in fact, it was unprecedented. A recent study by a Stanford sociologist, Michael Rosenfeld, found that never before, in the history of American public opinion, has there been an issue that changed more and faster than the rise of support for same-sex marriage. This book explains why that happened.

At the same time, it delves into the question of what makes a generation and how generational change happens. Currently, when most people talk about generations, they talk about Millennials, Generation X, and so on. But that understanding of generations is severely flawed, and social scientists follow a different way of thinking about generations. So at a deeper level, this book tries to encourage its readers—both academics and the public—to take the sociological and historical problem of generational change more seriously.

NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic, and what are the questions do you still have?

Hart-Brinson: I began my research way back in 2006, when I was a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The question of same-sex marriage was on the ballot that year, and even the most conservative students on campus—not just the students in my classes, but the ones who published a right-wing activist newspaper on campus—disagreed with older Republicans on the issue. They encouraged their fellow conservatives to vote against the constitutional referendum that would have banned same-sex marriage. I thought to myself, “Wow, is this such a generational issue that even the conservative activists agree with their liberal peers?” Back then, most observers thought that generational change was happening with respect to this issue, but no one knew exactly why. So I wanted to get behind the public opinion data, so to speak—I wanted to listen to two generations of Americans talk about the issue and see if I could determine the reasons young and old expressed the opinions that they did.

In terms of the questions that I still have, I still can’t believe the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide happened as fast as it did. When I did my interviews in 2008, I asked people whether or not they thought same-sex marriage would ever be legal in the United States, and I gave them a 20-40 year window to think about. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would only take seven years! Sometime around 2009, the shift in public opinion really increased in speed, compared to the rate of change before then; why that happened still need to be fully explained.

NOTCHES: This book is clearly about the history of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?

Hart-Brinson: This book is about generational change more generally—how young people develop distinctive world views that they carry with them throughout their lives, based on the historical events that they experience during their formative years. As older generations die, and they are replaced in the population by young people who think and act differently, society slowly evolves. Generational change is interesting because it can become this inexorable force. Since birth and death are constantly happening, some new generational attitude among the young can take on a momentum that makes it feel unstoppable. Of course, nothing is inevitable, but generational change is this very unusual sort of change because of how it can work slowly, quietly, behind the scenes and gradually shift the landscape on which political battles take place.

This dynamic was definitely there in the battle over same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage proponents lost every political battle they ever fought, except for the court case in Massachusetts, up until 2008. Even when President Obama was first elected in 2008, on that same day, Californians voted to write a ban against same-sex marriage into their constitution. But suddenly, right after that, everything changed, and same-sex marriage supporters never lost another battle. I think that was the work of generational change. Underneath those battles, public opinion was slowly shifting, and somewhere around 2009, a tipping point was reached that ultimately led to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage six years later. So this book is about how dynamics of generational change can be so powerful and so important for a society.

NOTCHES: How did you research the book? 

Hart-Brinson: Most of the book is based on interviews I conducted with college students and their parents in northern Illinois, in 2008 and 2009. I wanted to do a qualitative study of public opinion, to hear how ordinary Americans talk about the issue, so I recruited college students from Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb, and Rock Valley College, a community college in Rockford. Those two schools draw students primarily from that region, which includes Chicago, its suburbs, the mid-sized city of Rockford, and all the small towns around it. Once I interviewed a student, I asked for permission to interview one of their parents.

Honestly, the whole process of trying to disentangle the reason for the generational difference in how my informants talked about the issue was the most exciting and challenging part. I spent years just trying to map the similarities and differences in the discourses, but then once I did that, I still felt I hadn’t answered my question of why there was a generational difference. It took an analysis of the metaphors and analogies that people used to talk about same-sex marriage before I really found an answer that satisfied me. Older adults tended to use a variety of behavioral metaphors that characterized homosexuality as a behavior—what you do—whereas the college students tended to talk about homosexuality as an identity—who you are.

For example, the older generation talked about homosexuality as a “lifestyle,” whereas young people didn’t. If you think about it, “lifestyle” is a metaphor that takes a person’s identity and converts it into a series of behaviors. Like the college student lifestyle involves eating lots of Ramen noodles and staying up late studying, or the military lifestyle involves moving a lot. Students almost never talked about sexuality in those terms—to them, your sexuality was just part of who you are. So they had trouble even imagining how someone could oppose same-sex marriage, just because of who you are. Young people thought of sexuality as being like race—and just like racial discrimination is wrong, they thought discrimination based on sexuality was wrong, too.

What was interesting about this is that even young evangelical Christians felt that way, and a lot of older, secular liberal couldn’t bring themselves to support same-sex marriage because they still thought of sexuality in behavioral terms. So I concluded that different generations had different imaginations of homosexuality that they developed because of the time period they grew up in, and those imaginations didn’t always match what their religious and political ideologies said about homosexuality.

NOTCHES: Whose stories or what topics were left out of your book and why? What would you include had you been able to?

Hart-Brinson: That’s a tough question. I think, just because of where I conducted my interviews, the voices of many ethnic groups and immigrants are absent from my book, and there were relatively few people I talked to who identified themselves as LGBTQ. So my book is a good snapshot of regional culture at a particular moment in time. It would have been interesting to do this study in California, or in the more conservative South, to see how it would have been different. And it would be interesting to follow up with the people I interviewed to see if they have changed in the last ten years.

NOTCHES: Did the book shift significantly from the time you first conceptualized it?

Hart-Brinson: Yes, definitely! When I first started writing the book, it was a future-oriented book. It was about whether or not same-sex marriage would ever be legal in the U.S., and how generational change might be slowly pushing us in that direction. But mid-way through the book, I had to switch it to a past-oriented book. By 2013, the writing was on the wall, and I knew I had to make my book more historical—how did this happen so fast? So I added a historical chapter that really tried to definitively answer the question of what exactly caused the generational shift in American culture that caused young people to develop a different imagination of sexuality.

NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?

Hart-Brinson: You know, I sort of fell backwards into it. My original interest in this research was what made people develop their world views—how did people come to see the world the way they do. Same-sex marriage was a good topic that I could use to examine that question.

But then, of course, there’s Foucault! His introduction to The History of Sexuality is mandatory reading for students in sociology, or at least the sociology of culture, which is my specialty. I don’t think you can fully understand how powerful culture is as a political force without Foucault.

NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?

Hart-Brinson: I wrote this book with undergraduate students in mind as my primary audience, so I could see this book fitting in a variety of classes. My home discipline is sociology, so it could fit in a number of elective courses, or even the way some faculty teach Introduction to Sociology. It could work in a qualitative research methods class, in Gender Studies, LGBTQ Studies, maybe even Political Science. In many ways, the topic of generational change spans disciplinary boundaries, and people in a range of disciplines are starting to recognize that sexualities is not just a fringe specialty. So I think this book could work well in any class that wants to talk about social change and political change.

NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?

Hart-Brinson: Public support for same-sex marriage continues to increase in the U.S. because the generational change in the imagination of sexuality is still going on. Young people are still growing up imagining your sexuality as an identity, just part of who you are. Paradoxically, the hetero-homo binary has been reinforced because of the way that this new generation understands sexuality. It’s certainly a good thing that young lesbians and gays now have a level of social acceptance that their elders never had when they were growing up, and the legalization of same-sex marriage is going to validate those relationships in a way that is not that different from opposite-sex couples. But at the same time, I wonder if this change might make us less accepting of non-marital relationships and queer sexualities that fall outside the hetero-homo binary. More research is needed to determine what the consequences of this change will be.

NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?

Hart-Brinson: I am currently working on a revision and update for generational theory. The essential reading on generational theory, an essay by Karl Mannheim, called “The Problem of Generations,” is now 90 years old. A lot has changed during that time. The mind-body dichotomy is dead, and our society is more globalized and more networked than it was during his time. If Mannheim were alive today, I think he would have written his theory in different terms. So I am trying to update this theory, trying to resolve some of the big conceptual problems that remain with the theory, and hopefully spark some new interest in the question of generational change for a new generation of scholars.

Peter Hart-Brinson is Associate Professor of Sociology and Communication/Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He studies generations, civic engagement, media, culture, and social change.

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One Comment

  1. It would be interesting to see the generational theory advanced here examined in the light of what appear to be very persistent patterns of racism that are not, contrary to this example, ‘aging out’ of the public, at least not white American publics.

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